Shooting crazy hours, in rain and in heat, pushing yourself to keep going. Shooting documentaries can be just as tough as scripted production.
Perseverance. A word that has been on my mind quite a bit lately. What does that word mean to you in relation to this crazy industry that we are a part of? To me, it is a watchword for what I do to be in this business, stay in this business and to grow in what I do and what I aspire to.
As you undoubtedly know, filmmaking takes perseverance. Besides the skill, luck and talent that it takes to actually produce a project, it takes sheer stubbornness and a modicum of determination to keep it going and take it over the finish line. Over the past few years, I have been the cinematographer for two different feature-length documentary films. In addition, I have been producing my own two documentaries with my producing partner, Tony Peck.
In 2015, a friend of mine who I worked with at a production company quite a few years ago decided that he had a great opportunity to produce a film about the life of Muhammad Ali. You might think to yourself, “That sounds interesting, but haven’t there already been several films made about Ali, both narrative and documentaries?” Why yes, there have been several films about Ali. I asked my friend the same question and his reply is what intrigued me enough to want to sign on to shoot the film with him.
My friend laid out the rules of the game to produce the film. He works with talk show host and all around bon vivant, Dick Cavett. His job is to put together and administer licensing deals for all of the footage that Cavett owns from the many iterations of his talk shows that were on various networks throughout his career. He knew through his work that Cavett and Ali were good friends in real life and Ali had been on Cavett’s shows eleven times and that most of that footage hadn’t been licensed out so much of it had not been seen since it originally aired in the 60s, into the 70s.
My friend decided that the Cavett conversations with Ali could serve as the basis for a fascinating documentary, not covering Ali the Boxer, but Ali the man. His upbringing. His “unpopular at the time” yet ultimately heroic decision to become a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War. His controversial conversion to Islam and subsequent name change from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali. His friendship with Malcolm X and relationship with Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam. I was in, it all sounded pretty interesting and intriguing.
Basically, my friend and I shot the entire film ourselves, mostly interviews in Los Angeles and New York with a lot of interesting figures. Malcolm X’s daughter, Ilyasah Shabazz. Rev. Al Sharpton. Juan Williams, author of “Eyes On the Prize” An expert on The Nation of Islam at West Point.
The list went on and on. We shot interviews throughout most of late 2015, into the Fall of 2016. A few here in LA with Dick Cavett while he was out here on the west coast doing a play, also an interview with ESPN Boxing Commentator Larry Merchant. The film was financed solely by my friend out of his own pocket. He had relatively low costs since the two of us were really the main crew, only occasionally hiring a sound mixer or PA but there was all the travel from LA to New York and back. It took him about a year and a half to get the film edited, rights secured, stock footage licensed, a score composed, legal, color correction, grading, sound mix, DCP for exhibition. It all adds up.
I didn’t hear from the friend for quite a while, but then one day he called me and said that the film had been selected for exhibition at the 2017 South By Southwest Film Festival and that he had secured an agent to represent the film! May came and went and the film screened at the festival. A few months later, I spoke with the friend again and the film had been acquired by a major pay cable outlet and will screen on their channel.
My take away from the experience is that it takes a lot of time, blood, sweat and tears to achieve your goals with a film, video or television project. My friend will not be wealthy from selling the film to cable outlet but he will recoup his production costs and turn a nice profit. But keep in mind, he financed it out of his own pocket (huge risk) and put YEARS of his life into planning, writing, producing, editing and shepherding the film through the post process. He did have a partner in Mr. Cavett since he owns the rights to his shows, but the friend took almost all of the risk.
He completed the film and it’s going to be seen by the world because he was too stubborn to let the production just fall apart. It was difficult lining up interviews with some of the subjects and being that it was a documentary, he couldn’t pay the subjects so he had very little leverage to persuade the subjects to appear before our camera, other than it would be a chance for them to express their thoughts about Ali for posterity and as a kind of fond love letter for their friend. Ali was still alive when we were in production although he died shortly after we completed filming.
I have been in production on my own documentary series on the lives of two women athletes. Both are Outrigger Paddling racers in Southern California. We began production on the film in 2016 and filmed all through 2017 and 2018. We set out to make a film about a sport that not many people in the mainland U.S. even know exists with a focus on two specific women. Along the way during filming, as we interviewed, followed and became more involved with the women’s lives, the story completely changed just as we were finishing shooting last year.
We had plans to go into post in January of this year but as the story of the two women’s lives evolved, we decided to shoot for another year to keep telling their stories and the monumental things going on in their worlds. One woman, Courtney Hamchuk, was diagnosed with Stage 2 Triple Negative Breast Cancer and the other woman we were following, Aimee Spector, decided that she was going to run her first ultramarathon in Florida, and then she’s going to the World Outrigger Championships in Australia later this year.It’s been difficult to continue filming for another year but the story demands it and it has required that both me and my co-producer find the time., money and drive to keep on shooting, keep working on a trailer we can shop for financing to complete the film. This project began as a micro-budgeted documentary, made largely with sweat equity but once we are finished shooting, we will need to raise approximately $100k to pay our editor, composer, color correction and grading, sound mix, DCP, legal, motion graphics and all of the other assorted functions that must be applied to end up with a polished, professional looking and sounding Docu-Series.
As anyone who has produced and directed a film can tell you, if it were easy, everyone would be a filmmaker. Like most endeavors in life, it takes pain, blood, sweat and tears to cross the finish line. On top of that, it takes your talent as a storyteller and that faith that your project matters and that the story you’re telling will entertain, enlighten and inspire others.
As I write this blog entry, I just returned from a five-day shoot, following Aimee Spector, one of our subjects as she ran in the www.keys100.com, a 100-mile Ultra Marathon from Key Largo to Key West, Florida. If you’ve never shot in South Florida, we faced heavy rain, winds, blazing sun, mosquitos, sleep deprivation and general stress, I spent 30 hours in the support van without sleeping, hopping out to document her check points, following her in and running out with her with a camera. Documenting this woman running 100 miles in just over 22 hours was a living testimony to the power of sheer will and perseverance. It was her first Ultra Marathon and she finished number one in her age group, the 9th place women overall and the 21st place runner for the entire race. Hopefully, our Docu-Series will have a similar finish next year.